Insights from the UK and beyond
Mandelson’s scare tactic gives glimpse of election battle
Peter Mandelson gave a glimpse of Labour’s strategy in the next election on Monday, trying to scare voters from choosing the Conservatives by forecasting they would take the country back to the harsh days of the early 1980s.
The business secretary invoked former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her hardline ministers as he
sought to portray the modern Conservatives as unchanged from
their predecessors who broke the unions and shrunk the state in
Thatcher’s Conservative revolution after 1979.
In a speech to the Labour thinktank Progress, Mandelson
raised the spectre of figures loathed by the Left such as Norman
Tebbit, the Conservative cabinet minister famous for recounting
how his unemployed father had “got on his bike” to find work in
Mandelson’s speech sounded like the opening salvo in the
phoney war leading up to the general election that Prime
Minister Gordon Brown must call by next June.
Polls show Labour, whose decade of boom culminated in the
worst bust in post-war British history, has a mountain to climb
if it is to cling to power.
In a shift of strategy, the Labour government now
acknowledges there will be pressures on public spending once
Britain is through the recession.
Mandelson said Britain will have to “prioritise and
economise”, contrasting this with the deep cuts he says the
Conservatives are eager to make.
According to Mandelson, the Conservatives will cut public
spending if they win the next election not because the move has
been forced on them by the Labour government running up huge
debts, but because they are secretly itching to complete an
attack on public services started by Thatcher.
His theory is that the Conservatives are relieved that the
economic crisis allows them to drop the modernising image they
have adopted under David Cameron.
In fact, Mandelson’s attack may reflect Labour alarm over
polls showing that Cameron’s attempts to remake the Conservative
Party into a more caring party and shake off the old “nasty
party” image are having success with voters.
Labour, traditionally seen as the defender of the National
Health Service, can no longer count on enjoying that position.
A ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday last month
showed only 39 per cent of voters agreed that the NHS was safer
with Labour, while 47 per cent disagreed.
That was despite the embarrassment Cameron suffered in
August over Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan’s attack on the NHS.
Despite promising cuts in public spending, the Conservatives
have pledged increases in NHS spending in real terms.
Mandelson may also have been stung by Conservative shadow
chancellor George Osborne’s bold claim last month that the
modern Conservative Party was now the dominant progressive force
in British politics.
“Real reforms to public services, allied to a commitment to
fiscal responsibility, means cuts on the frontline can be
avoided and we can deliver more for less,” Osborne said.
A glance at recent speeches by Cameron’s front-bench team
shows they have tackled social issues ranging from the need to
regenerate inner cities to tackling the causes of crime.
That suggests Mandelson and his Labour colleagues may have
difficulty portraying Cameron’s Conservatives as a reincarnation
of Thatcher’s team.